Sin City may have seemed like an unusual place for Mike Pence to concede. The 64-year-old, Reagan- and Scripture-quoting, teetotaling evangelical Christian never gambled — except on Donald Trump, and then on his own presidential campaign.
But Pence has found himself on uncomfortable ground for weeks now.
With donations sagging, the former vice president, who often made self-deprecating remarks about his middle-class finances, had recently ponied up $150,000 of his own relatively small, newly-acquired fortune, amassed from a two-book deal and speaking fees, to prop up his campaign.
It wasn’t anywhere close to enough. For months, virtually no pollster or political prognosticator saw his campaign gaining traction in a GOP that prized id over ideology, presentation over pedigree. Pence had been a member of the conservative movement for nearly two generations, serving in Congress for six terms and one term as the governor of Indiana, until Trump plucked him from a difficult re-election bid to be his running mate.
But Trump — and Trumpism — would ultimately be Pence’s undoing, a Shakespearan turn for a politician who embraced the former president in April of 2016 despite endorsing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in his Hoosier state’s primary that year. Trump, Pence said at the time, had “given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans with the lack of progress in Washington, D.C.” His endorsement would help legitimize and uncork a populism that Pence eventually resisted – including with his refusal to overturn the 2020 election – but couldn’t re-bottle despite his best efforts in recent months.
On Saturday, the gasps in the crowd inside the Venetian resort on the Las Vegas strip belied the reality that all but he and his closest advisers could see coming for weeks, if not months.
Pence’s presidential campaign wasn’t working. In fact, it was over.
Facing a steep climb to qualify for the third GOP primary debate, the former vice president told a crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Summit in Las Vegas on Saturday that he had realized “it’s not my time” before suspending his campaign.
“The Bible tells us that there’s a time for every purpose under heaven,” Pence told the gathered audience of activists and donors. “Traveling across the country over the past six months, I came here to say it’s become clear to me that it’s not my time.”
In the post-Trump GOP, Pence, who had focused on evangelical-rich Iowa as his path to the nomination, could never seem to draw a crowd even there. Earlier this week, a POLITICO photo from what would prove to be one of his last campaign stops in Iowa, at a pharmacy in Sidney, went viral, reducing him to a punchline on late-night TV. Jimmy Kimmel called it the “saddest photo in presidential campaign history.”
At times, Pence seemed to be running more for his place in the history books than the Iowa caucuses, defending his resistance to Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election and criticizing Trump and other GOP candidates polling above him on everything from their positions on Social Security reform to the war in Ukraine. The Wi-Fi passcode at his June 7 launch event in Ankeny, Iowa, earlier this year was: “KeptHisOath!”
Pence framed the GOP primary as a battle between populism and conservatism, frequently decrying what he called “the siren song” of the former. He did manage to shape the debate in limited ways, pressing candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to embrace a 15-week ban on abortion and assailing biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy over his lack of experience. But his calls on the GOP to rekindle their support for international engagement amid the wars in Ukraine and Israel fell flat. His own brother, Rep. Greg Pence, would not support a recent fundraising package for the European nation.
Pence may never have had much of a chance. Despite his long-held presidential ambitions — he weighed runs in 2012 and 2016 — he faced a GOP electorate that had soured on his Reagan-era brand of politics. He received only two endorsements from his barn-red home state’s Republican congressional delegation, from Rep. Larry Bucshon and his own brother.
In some ways, it was surprising that Pence lasted as long as he did, given the hostility he endured from Trump’s most ardent supporters. The audience booed him in 20201 at a Faith and Freedom Coalition event — Pence’s own people, his own base, the evangelicals he had helped Trump co-opt as his vice presidential pick in 2016.
They booed him at the evangelical Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines earlier this summer.
And they booed him at the National Rifle Association summit in Indianapolis in April — in his own backyard.
For any other politician, this might have been enough to keep them from going through with a bid. But Pence continued, always as a happy warrior, with his beloved wife, Karen, ever at his side. Voters, both Democrats and Republicans, frequently approached him on the campaign trail to thank him for certifying the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021, despite him being the target of withering pressure from Trump and his acolytes to do otherwise.
Suspending his presidential campaign is not likely the last time Pence will make news in the coming months. He withheld a potential endorsement in his remarks Saturday, but others could court it. DeSantis, a frequent target of Pence’s criticism, spoke after Pence and said nothing of him.
But his fellow former Trump administration official, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, whose South Carolina governorship overlapped with Pence’s tenure in Indiana, said Saturday that Pence was “a good man of faith. He’s been a good man of service. He has fought for America, and he has fought for Israel, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.” And Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a fellow Reagan and evangelical conservative, said that the “Republican Party is stronger today because of Mike’s leadership.”
But Pence’s presence may be felt in ways more profound than an endorsement. He will likely be a prominent figure in Trump’s Jan. 6 trial, set to begin March 4, 2024, the day before Super Tuesday. He also is slated to release a second book with his daughter Charlotte Pence Bond on Nov. 14, called “Go Home for Dinner.”
In recent days on the campaign trail, Pence seemed to be grappling with the end, talking about his campaign in the past tense and telling a voter in Greenfield, Iowa, earlier this month that while he felt called to run for the presidency, he did not feel certain of the final result.
“We didn’t run because we felt like we saw some clear eight-lane superhighway straight to the Oval Office,” Pence said that day. “It has been an unbroken blessing to be traveling among the people of this state.”
It would be his last trip to the caucus state.
Myah Ward contributed to this report.